Back in the day…

This little brooch – which can also be worn as a pendant – is something I’ve been familiar with my whole life; it lived in Mum’s jewllery box and though I studied it closely as a young magpie, I never really paid attention to what it is, and then a conversation I had with Polly reminded me it existed and out it came from its box to be more closely studied and researched.  Isn’t it astonishing that this tiny, detailed, intricate little picture is made of human hair, all sewn by hand?  It seemed such a strange thing to do, and such an archaic idea that I decided to find out a bit about the why and wherefore of hair jewellery.  It’s not a long story, but it is an interesting one.

By the way, the wording on this little pendant is “The farther I fly the faster we tye”

Although hair jewellery had been around from the beginning of the 19th Century and even before, it wasn’t really in the fashion spotlight until 1840, and then it only lasted for about 10 years as the thing to have, the piece to wear.  Really, it’s the product of the Romantic period of Victorian jewellery and was made and worn as mourning jewellery; the hair of a loved one beauifully plaited or stitched as a piece to be worn in loving memory.  There were a few well known and trusted experts in the field of hair jewellery who made extraordinary bespoke pieces and set them in precious metal frames – brooches and pendants being the most popular items.  But not everyone could afford the services of a professional so amateur hair artists began springing up, making their own jewellery and then making bespoke pieces which were set in bog oak frames which was cheaper and therefore more affordable.  But very quickly it became obvious – apparently – that these fly-by-nights didn’t always use the customer’s own hair but substituted it with animal hair and presumably kept the customer’s hair for the better pieces of work, non bespoke and  for general sale.  As a result hair jewellery kits came on to the market so that young ladies could make their own at home, at their leisure, using their own hair, or buying it from peasants who would sell their hair for a ribbon or bauble or some other treat for which they would never be able to pay money.

It seems a rather maudlin thing to do, I think, but the Victorians were really good at mourning and everything that went with it. Well, Queen Victoria was a widow for 40 years, she wore her widow’s weeds for that whole time, and certainly she had a great influence on the Victorian’s ability to make the most of mourning. Many also had good reason to mourn with the deaths in the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, so rings and pendants and brooches abounded; some made with jet, some with black enamel and gold, some with hair, but all appropriately black and mournful.

But back to the hair jewellery; interestingly the Swedes really took to this and have been making hair jewellery for over 200 years, and they still do.  The Hairworkers Society was founded in 1994 and the Victorian Hairwork society is also very active.  Who knew!

Another intersting thing I learned is that apparently a life size portrait of Queen Victoria was made entirely of hair and was one of the exhibits at the International Exposition in Paris in 1855. I’ve searched everywhere for an image of this extraordinary work of art but have come up empty so while I don’t question it existed, I can’t show it to you because I can’t find it. If any of my avid readers know of this picture and can find an image of it, I’d love to see it!

While I do find this medium extraordinary and certainly interesting, as a magpie I have to say that I think I’d be happier if I found a little locket stitched with gold thread rather than hair, but hey, if even just the frame glitters a bit I would certainly pick it up for a closer look.

5 thoughts on “Back in the day…”

  1. Dear Magpie Dunn
    Such interesting blogs. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. I have to agree about the hair jewellery – not so appealing to lovers of shiny, colourful gems . But your piece on opals was revelatory and ended up with me buying a pair of Polly’s lovely earrings. This could prove rather addictive!

  2. that portrait of queen Victoria made of hair would be an amazing sight!
    Another wonderful blog full of fascinating information. Can not wait for the next blog. They are the Highlights of my week.

  3. Theresa Gusnowsky

    I just watched a BBC show on stately homes in England. In one episode the presenter showed a small framed portrait with hair placed in the back of the frame. I still have my baby hair, so perhaps another project during my self isolation.

  4. Much to my embarrassment I remembered too late that my cousin has a beautiful little portrait of our great grandfather and in the back of that we discovered his hair had been inserted in the most beautiful woven pattern. I only remembered that the other day. Good grief!

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